brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Month: December, 2010

Garret Keizer On Noise And The Logic Of The Loud

In his remarkable book, The Unwanted Sound Of Everything We Want (2010), Garret Keizer asks seeks meaningful answers to big questions about that most ubiquitous species of sound that surrounds almost all of us today: noise.  He wants to understand what our world sounds like, as well as how we would like it to sound, so he talks to lots of different people– from laypeople to specialists–visits National parks, motorcycle rallies, Canadian soundscape retreats and Dutch wind farms.  For Keizer, noise is unwanted sound–sound that is too loud, sound that disrupts and causes us bodily stress and even harm.  Noise is complex too in that it’s both a subjective (“That’s not music, that’s noise!”) and an objective phenomenon (measurable in decibels and capable of exceeding our threshold of safe hearing).  Noise registers difference, pushes our buttons, and demands that we take notice.  And of course, for many of us today, noise is omnipresent.  “Electric lights, recreational machinery, personal listening devices, earworms–all have contributed to a collective condition of cultural tinnitus” (247).*  Noise, then, is in many places a constant and ringingly intrusive sound.

Keizer’s view of the modern iteration of noise traces its origins to one of two sources, both of which represent species of human alienation: “a denial of the body, which manifests itself as a desire to abolish the physical limitations of time and space through speed; or, a denial of our equality with other people, a contempt for ‘the weak'” (217).

This is the heart of Keizer’s argument: our noise comes from living out of balance with the modest scale of human face to face, real-time interaction.  Furthermore, The Unwanted Sound builds productively on Canadian composer Barry Truax’s notion of “acoustic ecology” by tracing a history not only of noise, but of our gradual recognition of noise’s “modern din” (115) as a pollutant perhaps as toxic as car exhaust.  An important part of Keizer’s agenda here is to situate noise as an environmental pollutant in order to counteract the tendency of sound scholars to consider noise only “as subversive of
the reigning order” (97-98) and as a “cultural signifier that identifies one’s ‘tribe’ and its supposed inclinations” (125).  In
fact, Keizer returns several times to critique this notion (well-worn in academic discourse about sound) that noise and noise-making are, more than anything else, transgressive acts of resistance by the socially oppressed (162).  That they may be, but Keizer’s point is that we need to do more than simply theorize noise; we need to address it head on and deal with it.

So how do we deal with noise? We could start by trying to make to make less of it and observing the link between living quietly and living in a more ecologically considerate (or “green”) way–recognizing how noise is a by-product of our carbon footprint. Need an example?  Airplanes are our biggest polluters and also among the noisiest intrusions into our everyday lives.  So, we could begin by remembering that noise is ultimately an ecological thing.  “Take your ears” says Keizer, “into the parks, backyards, and village greens of America and listen” (232).

There are so many insights in this book, but here are a few of the most illuminating (in no particular order).  First, is Keizer’s assertion that “quietness is a form of wealth” (54). It’s expensive to “get away from it all” and those with the means usually manage to find (buy) peace through quiet.

Second, Keizer riffs on two meanings of jamming as either a multi-part conversation or as an interference (culture jamming) in the form of competing voices noisily disregarding one another’s utterances.  Which kind of soundscapes do we want for ourselves?

Third, Keizer articulates the downsides of amplification: “amplification tends to destroy intimacy.  Either it destroys intimacy by drowning out conversation, or else it counterfeits intimacy by making physical proximity irrelevant to social intercourse” (149).  Anyone who has ever rehearsed with a rock band will know what Keizer is talking about here.

Fourth, Keizer cites Composer Andrew Waggoner’s notion of “the colonization of silence” driven by commercial aims (28).  One of the noisiest varieties of noise is simply the ongoing buzz of the 21st-century capitalism machine vying for our attention, getting us interested in stuff, usually to the accompaniment in jingles or (more commonly these days) licensed songs.

Fifth, Keizer brings to our attention efforts around the world to take stock, study and value sounds.  The Natural Sounds program of the US Park Service (http://www.nature.nps.gov/naturalsounds) is an example of this.

Sixth, Keizer discusses  Keizer discusses noise maps and noise mapping (see for example http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4138936.stm).

Seventh, Keizer touches on Bernie Krause’s idea of biophany, which describes the sonic niches occupied by species within a particular ecosystem (64).

Finally, what about the inner life of noise, the noise we hear in our heads via earworms and plain old noisy thoughts?  We are all, Keizer says, “conflicted, compromised, and confused” (241). Ask yourself, “if your mental processes could be rendered as an audio track, would it sound like a piano sonata or a demolition derby?”

If all this does not yet seem useful to you, Keizer also include five appendices: a time line of noise history, a glossary of noise terms, a list of organizations that deal with noise, and most intriguingly, a set of practical considerations for noise disputes and a personal noise code.

Thank you Garret Keizer for writing such a passionate and grounded defense of why we should care about noise.

* “Earworms”, a term coined by Oliver Sacks, are “catchy tunes that…are, neurologically, completely irresistible” (127).

Guest Post: Talia Jimenez on Cells

Today I share with a guest post by my friend Talia Jimenez.  Talia is a musicologist who also blogs on exercise (http://myexercisehabit.blogspot.com).  Thanks for your post Talia!

* * *

After a beautifully focused yoga workout, our instructor has us lie down in sava or dead pose.  His narration guides us through each one of our chakras.  He does not refer to this, but I become aware that I am a bunch of cells wrapped around a column of air that functions thanks to its exquisite association with a thread of life energy that is delicately in balance with the life energy of the other bodies lying around me in sava, and possibly with the life energy of all other living things that exist.  It may be ironic that, to be best aware of this life energy, I have to play dead.  But maybe it is like keeping quiet in order to better hear an interesting sound or like staring at one of those 3-D pictures that finally jump out at you.

A theory of the beginning of life poses that cells began as single entities that then started coming together to form multi-cellular organisms, gradually differentiating according to function and eventually according to species.  Is it possible that pre-cellular organic molecules began arranging themselves around delicate threads of life energy, growing and regrouping in order best to give it expression?  D. calls this energy “dark energy,” and he believes we can’t sense it at all, because it is such an intrinsic part of what we are.

Rilke’s thoughts are telling: maybe we represent just a second in the gestation of a universe, yet to be born?  Our cells coming together, still ancient when compared to the future toward which they are working. “We” have nothing to do with it, we are just entities with a mission we know nothing about.

My six-year-old son asks me, “What was the beginning of life?” I explain to him about the perfect “ocean soup” that allowed organic, lifeless elements to become bound to each other to create what we call life.  “Yes, but where did life come from?”  I cannot avoid the question myself.  There seems to be that one crucial (and missing) ingredient that must have gone into the soup for those first life-life molecule to be formed.  (And, by the way, it may not have been a soup, but rather refreshing ice, where the first life forms came about:http://www.isayev.info/cold-start-of-life-ice-as-a-protocellular-medium-for-rna-replication/).  I don’t tell my son about the life thread or energy.  It still does not contain an answer.  “Where did the life thread come from?” he will ask.  I don’t know.  Nobody knows, or can know.  It’s like stick figures on a piece of paper hypothesizing about the 3rd dimension, without ever being able to stick their head out of the page.  Maybe they can have stick-figure yoga and have an inkling, a moment of wonderment, or recognition, of what “volume” might mean, that will vanish soon after the session is over and they go about their stick-figure business and write stick-figure blog guest entries about their experience.

Glenn Gould’s The Idea Of North

In honor of all the cold weather lately, I take the opportunity to revisit one of the only odes of the North (and the cold) that I know of–I’m speaking of course about Glenn Gould’s radio documentary, The Idea of North.  Gould is most famous as a pianist who renders the keyboard music of J.S. Bach with crystal clarity, making the composer’s dense fugues sound like a (contrapuntal) walk in the park.  Here is a clip of Gould playing Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E Major on a two-tiered harpsichord.

As Gould retired from the concert stage to concentrate on recording, he also began experimenting with musique concrète-style audio compositions.  His best known work is The Idea Of North, the first of a three-part radio documentary called The Solitude Trilogy.  Here, Gould explores what the (Canadian) north means to a variety of characters who either live there or have interacted with the North in some way.

The Idea of North is hard to categorize: it’s part soundscape, part documentary, part studio composition, part contrapuntal radio experiment.  But most of all it’s about multiple voices telling overlapping stories that requires of us new ways of listening; in fact, it reminds us how differently we process music and speech.  We can easily pay attention to many musical lines happening at once, but following several conversations at once and making sense of several voices sounding simultaneously is much more difficult to do.

Here is an excerpt of The Idea Of North:

And here is an interview with Peter Shewchuk, one of the sound editors who worked with Gould on the project.

Heston Blumenthal On Multisensory Experiences

The self-taught English chef Heston Blumenthal, owner of The Fat Duck restaurant and famous for pushing the bounds of cookery, is interested in how sensory context affects our experience of food.  In a recorded statement of his philosophy available for listening (as an MP3 file) on his website, Blumenthal notes that even sound can play an important role in our perception of food.  His first example is an experiment he did with his staff, where they wore headphones hooked up to a microphone that amplified the crunch of potato chips as they ate them (!).  It turns out that the amplified chips were perceived as actually being crisper.  His second example of sound’s role in affecting our perception of food is this: Can sound can be used to trigger our memories while we eat?  To explore this question, Blumenthal fed his dining patrons oysters while playing them (via an iPod hidden in a real seashell) “sounds of the sea, punctuated with the occasional squawk of a seagull.”  Blumenthal found that sound–especially ocean sounds that trigger powerful memories for some people–had a tremendous effect on how the food tasted for diners; in fact, some diners were so moved by the experience that they broke down in tears.  The experiment confirmed for Blumenthal the power of using the senses as a tool for tapping into the mysterious regions of memory.  And of course, a new dish was born: Sound Of The Sea.

You can listen to Heston Blumenthal tell the stories here.

And that sea and swawking seagull soundscape that diners hear as they eat can be heard here.

Favela On Blast

The documentary movie Favela On Blast (produced by the American DJ Wesley Pentz, aka Diplo) explores the culture of electronic music making and dance parties situated in the favelas in the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro.  The name of this energized and hard-hitting music is variously known as funk carioca, favela funk, and baile funk.  Musically, funk carioca is a particular rhythm that mixes American electronic funk (specificically, Miami bass) with the diverse influences of Brazilian music (such as xaxado, coco, baião, forró, and samba rhythms).  The music has its origins in the 1980s when records of Miami bass caught on in Rio via DJs who went to Miami to soak up and bring back the latest sounds.

Early funk carioca sampled these Miami bass rhythms.  If you want to hear a seminal track that influenced the course of funk carioca, listen to “8 Volt Mix” by DJ Battery Brain.  This track has the elements of what would become the funk carioca sound: the Roland TR-808 drum machine sounds, a syncopated rhythm (that can be traced back to electro music), and the horn stabs:

(If you want to dig further into where Battery Brain borrowed his material, check out this site, www.whosampled.com to listen to ten tracks that found their way into “8 Volt Mix.”)

Since the 1990s, these rhythms, along with short samples of horn section stabs for melodic interest (samples from the horns of James Brown and from the Rockie movie soundtrack are ever popular) have been the backdrop over which dozens of Rio MCs have sung and rapped on the topics of social and racial justice, poverty, violence, crime, and sex.

Favela On Blast has wonderful, “fly on the wall” footage that allows us to watch DJs putting together their funk carioca tracks in the most modest of home recording studios.  In one clip we see DJ Jorginho Matarazzo looping a percussion track, adding samples of horn stabs, and moving around audio clips of an MC he just recorded minutes earlier.  The software and computer are ancient, but that doesn’t stop Matarazzo from working effortlessly at breakneck speed to finish his track.  If nothing else, funk carioca is always, always relevant because it’s of the moment.

In another scene, DJ Sany Pitbull describes how the music has evolved since the 1990s, when DJs would just spin records of Miami bass, to today where DJs literally “drum” out patterns on their Akai samplers on the instrument’s little rubber pads:  “Before the DJ played [the turntable] like that…Today it’s like this drumming…”  We see that Pitbull is talking about in clips from funk parties where the DJs improvise the placement of their sampled horn stabs over the massive Miami bass-derived beats.  It’s really live, interactive music.

The massiveness of what funk carioca sounds and feels like live is a big part of its affect.  As DJ Carlos Machado notes: “Bass makes a mess of your consciousness.  It is a tribal song.  You to go to understand your ancestry.”  And the sheer exuberance and power of the music makes it something people can channel themselves into.  Thus, MC Catra describes the music as “a safety valve for crime and prostitution, a catalyst for faith, joy, sensuality, creativity, love and sex.  Funk is all this together.”

Overall, Favela On Blast offers ethnographically rich portraits of the funk carioca music culture.  The footage is lush, the DJs and MCs speak for themselves, in their locales, about their work and we read their words in translation; they make music and we watch them do it.

Electronic Music and Gaming Theory

In this week’s New Yorker there is an article by  Nick Paumgarten on the Japanese video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto that unpacks the magic behind such Miyamoto game creations such as Super Mario Bros. and Legend Of Zelda.  Game designing is a creative endeavor that few people besides Miyamoto have mastered.  (Though the American Will Wright, designer of Sims and Spore, also comes to mind.). One key to designing a good game, notes Paumgarten, is to make sure it has a complexity and dynamic depth to it that is cognitively challenging yet also charming and fun to engage with.  Achieving this complexity and dynamism means designing the game around a few elements that can endlessly remix themselves in different combinations to keep things fresh.  Describing the source of Super Mario Bros.’s appeal Paumgarten writes:

“The game had just fifteen or twenty dynamics in it…yet they combined in such a way to produce a seemingly limitless array of experiences and moves, and to provide opportunities for an alternative, idiosyncratic style of play, which brings to mind nothing so much as chess” (92).

To me, there is a similarity between the experiences of playing and designing videogames and making electronic music with a computer.  Specifically, I am thinking of the way software such as Ableton Live (which I happen to really enjoy using–or should I say playing?) is configured.  For those readers who have never used it, this is what it looks like:

One of the software’s two viewing pages, Session View (what is shown in the pic above), is arranged like a mixer, with each sound given its own vertical track.  Within each track, one can stack discrete chunks of audio or midi called clips.  So for a single track of say, percussion, one can have a few dozen clips of different lengths.  Each clip can be looped, played back, and triggered in any order the musician wishes.  And that’s just one track; imagine the “limitless array of experiences and moves” available to a musician with a dozen tracks, each with two dozen clips.  That’s a lot of ways to combine sounds, and we haven’t even begun to consider effects processing (e.g. ways to alter, distort and enhance a sound such as distortion or reverb effects, etc.).

So, for electronic musicians who perform using a laptop running Ableton’s software, part of the pre-performing process is a little like Miyamtoto’s designing complexity and dynamism into his games. And the pleasure comes later when musicians get to (literally) play their music, improvising different combinations of sounds, and figuring out on the fly in what direction to head in.  Like the experience of interacting with a videogame, electronic music allows a musician to explore virtual worlds that strike a balance between adventure and play…

And speaking of play, Paumgarten also cites Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1938), a famous study of this essential human activity, in order to further unpack the joys of videogaming.  For Huizinga, play has five attributes:

1. it’s free,
2. it takes place outside the realm of everyday life,
3. it is, materially speaking, unproductive,
4. it follows an agreed upon protocol of constraints and rules,
5. its outcome is uncertain and therefore it encourages improvisation from its players

This sounds like an awfully apt characterization of music too, doesn’t it?

Interviews with Roger Linn

Instrument designer and musician Roger Linn is perhaps most famous for inventing the first drum machines (in the early 1980s) to use digitally sampled drum sounds, the LM-1 and LinnDrum.  In the years since, Linn teamed up with Akai to invent the MPC-series of drum machines/sequencers, and lately Linn has turned his attention to making unusual products for guitarists such as the AdrenaLinn filter/effects/sequencer units.  In a way, through his products he has deeply shaped the sounds of popular music over the past thirty years.

I found several interviews with Linn at sweetwater.com (that won’t show up in a google search).  Here, Linn outlines the history of some of his innovations such as the LinnDrum.  In the final video, Linn offers his perspective on what is missing in musical hardware innovation today.  He’s amazed that we are still largely playing guitars, basses, keyboards, and drums, and muses about what a new controller or control surface needs to have in order to compete with these old-fashioned instruments, what a new controller needs to be truly interactive.  He says:

“What is the new control surface that allows people to not only to just do superb solo work…but also work with other people, to use wireless sync to be able to synchronize together?  Instead of the old-fashioned way which is to read the same sheet music…You’ve got this interactive merging of the worlds of real-time and recording editing in the form of looping where you basically record something and immediately play back on top of it.  There are all kinds of great ideas happening, but people are implementing those ideas using fairly poor hardware interfaces–just a keyboard or guitar or mouse–you’re rolling a bar of soap around on a table. It’s silly.”

An unintentionally funny part of this is that musicians playing acoustic music together do the “wireless sync” thing pretty effortlessly together!  (It’s called listening.)  Another thing to remember is that widely-used, time-tested instruments like guitars, basses, keyboards, and drums are more than simply musical “controllers.” What makes them enduring is that they have deep histories of use, a kind of collective consciousness embedded in them that includes all the things that were ever played on them–a repertoire of expressive possibilities.  When someone decides to take up the drums, for instance, he is dipping into an ocean of other people who have played that same constellation of instruments (I’m thinking of a drumkit here), struggled to overcome the resistance of the instrument, struggled with learning a technical facility to enable the feeling of being “expressive”, and so on.  Simply put, there is a lot going on beneath the seemingly simple surface of an “old-fashioned” instrument, and that might be part of why we continue to be drawn to them.

The kinds of new electronic/digital controllers Linn is describing don’t have this collective history embedded in them (yet), and this may be part of the reason why it will take time and a lot of work by a lot of musicians to move them securely into our collective embrace.  But consider what happened to turntables after DJs began using them in new ways in discos, in hip hop: thirty years later we now have digital turntables that are widely used and considered expressive instruments.  (And DJs are considered a breed of musician too.)

You can view interviews with Roger Linn here.

On Shivkumar Sharma

One of my favorite musicians is North Indian santoor player Shivkumar Sharma.*  The santoor is a 72-string box zither of Persian origins.

Here is a painting of Iranian women playing the santoor’s predecessor, the santur, circa 1669:

Sharma was the first musician to use the instrument in North Indian classical music, giving his first performance in 1955.  One plays the santoor with it sitting on one’s lap, striking its strings with two wooden mallets.  Sharma (and now his son, Rahul Sharma, as well) is a master player, coaxing all manner of shadings from this modest box with strings.  One thing to remember about North Indian classical music is that it is predominantly a vocal soloist’s music, with instrumentalists emulating the infinite flexibility of the voice.  Thus, Ravi Shankar’s sitar playing or Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod playing–fingers plucking strings, sliding and bending notes–are, in a way, trying to approximate the flow of the singing voice.  With that said, the santoor player has yet another mediating object between him and his instrument: those little wooden mallets.  What I think Sharma does quite magically is use a tremolo technique that involves making what looks and sounds like one-handed buzz rolls.  It’s almost a sleight-of-hand and what the listener hears is a smooth flow of sonics, one note melting into another, tones luminously extended into specters of pitch.  In those buzzing moments, it’s almost as if Sharma is not playing a percussion instrument anymore–he’s singing.**  You most often hear Sharma tremolo-buzzing during the slow-paced introductory section of a performance known as an alap.  Here’s a clip of an alap:

In the later sections of a performance, when things are heating up so to speak–the tempo has increased, themes are being explored in ever-densifying improvisations–Sharma brings what I can best describe as a drummer’s funkiness to the proceedings.  What we need to remember here is that even though those santoor mallets can be an obstacle to expressivity (after all, it’s another thing between the musician’s skin-touch and his instrument), they are also a variety of drum sticks, and as such turn hands into drummer’s hands capable of idiomatically drummistic things.  Put more simply: playing an instrument with sticks invites and encourages certain percussive “ways of the hand” (to borrow David Sudnow’s phrase).

Here’s another clip of Sharma digging in and creating both a melody and a groove at the same time.  He is accompanied by the singular Zakir Hussain on tabla.  (Notice around 1:25 Sharma stops to re-tune a note without missing a…beat.)  I recommend you watch all 4:43 minutes of the clip.

*If you’re wondering why this post is about Sharma and not any of the many other virtuosos out there, I am a zither-playing percussionist myself, so I’m kinda biased.  (I play the Chinese yang-qin zither and studied briefly with Zhentian Zhang in Boston–an entry for another day perhaps.)

**This idea of “singing” at one’s instrument is a useful way of conceptualizing both its limitations and possibilities.  I’m having flashbacks here to my undergraduate studies in percussion, where my teacher Russell Hartenberger demonstrated timpani technique and we explored whether grand hand-arm gestures after a drum stroke in fact influence one’s perception of the sound’s duration . . .To this day, I’m not entirely sure how this all works, only that on some level it is real.

Music Blogging and Music Piracy

A few weeks ago, a number of prominent hip hop blogs were shut down by the US government (working on behalf of the Recording Industry Of America) for copyright infringement and selling counterfeit goods.  What were the blogs doing that is so illegal?  They regularly posted and offered for free download new music “leaked” to them by hip hop artists and their record labels ahead of commercial release dates.

(If you wish to see exactly what an US Department of Justice-“seized” website looks like, click here.)

What makes this latest page of the ongoing musical practice-copyright laws story interesting is that music blogs are in fact used by the recording industry as promotional outlets.  Artists and record labels routinely leak music to the blogosphere as a way to generate early buzz–especially among younger music fans who may, it goes without saying, may never actually pay for their favorite music.  For their part, many music bloggers see themselves as a legitimate part of today’s music industry ecology, hyper-linking together artists and listeners. As hip hop blog OnSmash.com founder Kevin Hofman views the situation: “I see myself as a legitimate source of content online, and I have no reason to believe that I was ever perceived as otherwise.”

You can read an article on this story here.

Michael Chanan on “World Music”

Sometimes the best writing on music is done not by specialists, but rather by people who might be called generalists with a view and taste for the big issues that musical experience so often seems to frame.  The English documentary filmmaker, writer, and teacher Michael Chanan is someone I would consider to be such a generalist.  Chanan has written three critically incisive yet accessible books on music: Repeated Takes (1995), Musica Practica (1996), and From Handel To Hendrix (1999).  (In an earlier blog post of mine, I drew on Musica Practica in my discussion of how music has meaning.)  There is a link to Chanan’s website under the “Connections” section on the right side of this blog page.

One of the most stimulating parts of Repeated Takes, Chanan’s history of music and recording technology, is its brief final chapter, “Global Corporations and ‘World Music’.”  While numerous ethnomusicologists and musicologists have, since the 1990s, written articles and books on the topics of globalization and the circulation of musics through recordings, Chanan’s chapter remains a useful jumping off point, I think, for getting us to consider some important issues. Here, Chanan examines the impact of recording and recordings on the production and circulation of ‘world music’ and makes four points in particular that are worth repeated takes from us.

First, Chanan presents a bird’s-eye view of how recording has impacted almost all of our world’s musics:

“What goes on every day without drawing political attention to itself is the progressive transformation of the musics of different cultures which the market blindly throws into contact with each other” (176).

This leads to his second point, which is a description of the kinds of things that happen when different musics collide, so to speak, with one another in their recorded forms:

“Under the impact of electro-acoustic reproduction, musical cultures of every type develop new dynamics.  Techniques are extended, new instrumental combinations are tried, fusions and hybrids appear and proceed to reproduce independently, in musical revenge against technological alienation.”

Then Chanan starts to ask questions about what it means that the musics of different cultures come into contact with one another, and indeed, are changed by one another:

“Is ‘world music’ only a commercial phenomenon, or does it represent an authentic cultural undercurrent?”

“Is the idea just another form of cultural expropriation and exploitation or could it possibly represent a true growth of awareness of other musics?”

“Is there any real exchange involved?”

And perhaps most pressingly:

“Is it changing our musical consciousness?”

The possible answers to these questions–which Chanan doesn’t presume to know–leads him back to his bird’s-eye view and a wondering aloud about the place of music (recorded or otherwise) in our lives.  He wonders about “which forms of music are signs of social health, and which are symptomatic of alienation, frustration and resentment” and if music–through its global circulation on recordings–“is becoming denuded or truly being democratized?” (177).

At the very least, this is the kind of writing that makes you take a moment to think about your own mediated listening practices and about how you use music and how it seems to affect you.

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